"All the News That's Fake," a feature that launched in the current Us, calls out competitors for running stories "too shocking to be true." Cases in point: Star's claim that Katie wants to divorce Tom, Life & Style's assertion that Brad wants Jen back, an In Touch package on boob jobs, and OK's "SPLIT!" story about J. Lo and Marc Anthony.
"Split? What split?" Us asks. Its rebuttal concludes with a J. Lo rep consulting lawyers.
Eyes hungry for lies?
"It's important to clarify what's going on to the reader," explained Janice Min, editor in chief at Us (and class of '91 at the Columbia University School of Journalism -- really). "But it's also strange to me that these celebrity magazines are the one category where there's this acceptance of fiction that would not exist in any other category."
"Us Weekly gained credibility through its reporting, editorial mix and reputation," Ms. Min added. "The last thing you want is for the category to just become a joke."
We here at Ad Age take media too seriously to ever think it's funny, so we consulted an expert. Do celebrity-weekly readers care about accuracy?
Risk for advertisers
"Hell, no," said Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. "They want to be entertained. If a friend says that this might be happening, that's good enough. It's good enough for a doctor's office, waiting to get your teeth cleaned, a ride on the bus or a stop in the john."
Some advertisers, however, do care -- no small concern. Ad spending in Us, In Touch, Life & Style and OK totaled $564 million last year, up from $402 million in 2005, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
"We would have fundamental concerns about a magazine that knowingly lied to its readers or fabricated the truth," said George Janson, managing partner-director of print at Mediaedge:cia, who said the weeklies are "a very vital category in which to engage readers across demographics."
"If we wanted to advertise in environments where the truth was questionable, we could put our dollars elsewhere," he said. "There is still a place for credible, fact-based journalism despite the proliferation of blogs and community activation."
Striking a nerve
And the Us challenge did highlight one eternal truth: Magazine editors don't like being called liars. The rivals under fire all said their stories were accurate. "In Touch completely stands by its story," said Richard Spencer, that title's editor in chief. "The cover package was an investigation into which celebrities whose cleavage had recently increased had actually gone under the knife."
Us Weekly isn't exactly the Encyclopaedia Britannica itself, a Star spokesman pointed out. Ms. Min ceded that point. "On Tom Cruise and Katie, yes, we reported that they were having a boy," she said. "We ran a correction." What about its report that Vince proposed to Jen -- and Jen said yes? Us stands by the story; the couple later broke off their engagement, Ms. Min said.
"So has Us Weekly made mistakes that we've had to correct?" she said. "Absolutely. Has every publication? Absolutely. But these publications have really become the pro wrestling of celebrity. It's managed and staged -- but without the participation of the performers."
Of course, performers' participation here means the published truth often gets filtered through their publicists' confirm-or-deny routines, and we all know how reliable and agenda-free they tend to be.
In any case, we're looking forward to reading the next installment of Ms. Min's new feature; she is planning a retrospective of the competition's erroneous Brangelina stories. "I believe in the last two years they've been married about 12 times," she said.
And we wish them every happiness every time.